HANOVER, Pa. — President Trump’s supporters are shocked and disappointed that his business empire employed illegal immigrants, even while he was in the Oval Office and calling on Congress for a crackdown.
“That does bother me because a lot of the employers who hire illegal immigrants take advantage of it to pay them less and work them like dogs,” said Katie Harrington, 55, a Trump voter who owns the All About You hair salon.
Ms. Harrington switched from Democrat to Republican in 2016 because of Mr. Trump, helping a Republican presidential candidate win Pennsylvania for the first time in 28 years and seal Mr. Trump’s upset victory.
Now she, like other Trump voters across this crucial 2020 battleground state, struggled to excuse the president.
“I’m sure it is just cheap labor,” said Butch Skidmore, 40, a Trump voter and former Navy SEAL who was tossing back a beer at the bar in the Republican Club of Hanover.
But he bristled at the reports of widespread hiring of illegal immigrants as housekeepers, groundskeepers and laborers at Trump golf clubs and resorts, as well as a Washington Post report detailing how the president’s son Eric Trump employed an illegal immigrant as the caretaker of his private hunting retreat.
“That’s a little upsetting, to be honest with you,” said Mr. Skidmore, who cites stopping illegal immigration as a top concern.
He still planned to vote for Mr. Trump next year, saying he was more excited about it than in 2016 because Mr. Trump nevertheless was keeping his promises, including combating illegal immigration.
“He is fighting his ass off for the wall,” Mr. Skidmore said.
In interviews with Trump voters throughout Pennsylvania, the president got the benefit of the doubt. His supporters said he either was not responsible for front-line hiring decisions or that employing illegal immigrants is a common and near-unavoidable practice in America’s hospitality and construction industries.
They should expect to hear more about the illegal hires as Democrats make it part of their assault on Mr. Trump’s credibility and try to puncture his Rust Belt base, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
“The real issue is Trump’s hypocrisy. His illegal use of immigrants is just another example of Trump saying one thing and doing another, just like his embrace of traditional values in contrast to his extramarital affairs,” he said. “His employment of immigrants is simply a small part of a bigger picture. The big picture will cost him support with the middle-class voters who want him to play by the rules just like they do.”
Democratic members of Congress began highlighting the illegal hires during the president’s State of the Union address. They brought to the speech as their guests two women, Victorina Morales and Sandra Diaz, who were illegal immigrants when they worked at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
“I’ve invited Victorina so that he may look her in her eyes to tell his lies to a familiar face,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey Democrat.
After the first illegal immigrants came forward late last year to say they had been employed at one of his golf courses, The Washington Times reported that just five of the 565 companies in Mr. Trump’s business empire were signed up to use E-Verify, the government’s best tool to weed illegal immigrants out of the workforce.
It took a second round of illegal immigrants who said they, too, worked at Trump properties to spark a change. In January, the Trump Organization announced it would start using E-Verify. The businesses also responded to reports of illegal workers by firing scores of employees who were in the country unlawfully.
About 11 million illegal immigrants are living in the U.S. and 7.8 million have jobs, accounting for nearly 5 percent of the civilian workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the U.S., illegal immigrants make up roughly 53 percent of farmhands, 15 percent of construction labor, and 9 percent of manufacturing and service industry workers, according to Pew.
“How is he different from the other people who hire illegal immigrants?” said Andrew, a 42-year-old information technology worker in the state capital, Harrisburg, who did not give his last name.
He said he was a registered Democrat who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and might vote for him again, but he called the decision a “fluid situation” that will include consideration of the illegal employees.
“Americans should have American jobs,” he said. “Everyone has a right to come here, but there is a formal process. That’s why we have laws.”
David W. Leopold, an immigration lawyer and counsel to the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said Trump supporters were grasping at straws to defend him.
“The excuse that Donald Trump is too busy to know about hiring at his ‘empire’ is ludicrous. First, it isn’t an empire. It’s a small family business. Particularly the golf clubs,” he said. “It’s clear that small numbers of people work at the clubs for many years and knew and interacted with Trump personally. That includes the undocumented workers such as Victorina Morales and Sandra Diaz.”
“The ‘everybody does it’ excuse is no excuse. Trump based his candidacy and now his presidency on stopping illegal immigration. It is the height of hypocrisy for Trump to exploit undocumented workers for personal gain while separating children at the border, destroying families in the U.S. and screaming for a border wall,” said Mr. Leopold. “Since when is breaking the law acceptable if everyone is doing it? The answer is either to hold them accountable for breaking the law or change the law to legalize the 11 million.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist closely allied with the White House, said the criticism will ring hollow because it comes from Democrats pushing an open-borders agenda of sanctuary cities and voting rights for illegals.
“Obviously the Democrats are going to throw the kitchen sink at him and try to dislodge any support he has in the Rust Belt. That’s what they see as their path to victory,” he said.
Mr. O’Connell said the president can easily bat away the criticism by saying, “As a businessman, I took advantage of a rigged system that works against the American worker. As president, my foremost concern is the American worker, and that’s why I’m working to fix our broken system.
“The problem is the broken system,” he said.